Unpacking From the Motherhood Guilt Trip:
An Addendum to my Mother of the Year Application
They say it takes a village to raise a child but no one ever tells you where that village is or how to get there. As all mothers know, the journey through motherhood is filled with many highs and lows, twists and turns, victories and defeats, and underneath it all, a big, heaping dose of guilt which hinges on the question, “Did I get it right?”
While trying to complete this year’s Mother of the Year application (yes, I am nominating myself. Don’t judge. All mothers know if you want something done you have to do it yourself) I made a very painful and brutal discovery. I don’t look good on paper. In fact, I have lots of “splaining” to do. That is why I have come up with some additional categories for the somewhat outdated application.
After the usual generic, getting to know you questions like “Describe yourself,” “Tell about your family,” “What characteristics qualify you to be MOTY?” I became creative, and this is when it got real.
“I don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies…”
I had one of the most fairy tale experiences when I gave birth to my oldest son. It was on Easter Sunday, and we named him Christopher, and his nursery theme was Peter Rabbit. You couldn’t have scripted a more wonderful day. Aside from those pesky labor pains and the whole loss of dignity while having a baby, everything went so well. My entire family was with me and it was just about perfect. This was a relief because I was so fearful of having a C-Section; a fear which was caused and amplified during our birthing classes. During this time, they were renovating the hospital and construction was going on in the area where our classes met. On the night we were learning about C-sections, at the exact moment the video showed the doctor making an incision across the woman’s very pregnant stomach, we heard the incredibly loud and extremely close sound of screeching, buzzing saws. Every woman in the room screamed and grabbed her belly. I know. My life is a sitcom–you just can’t make this stuff up.
After surviving a normal delivery and 2 days of pampering in the hospital, we went home. I had never really been around babies before and it showed. I was a nervous wreck. It didn’t help when I overheard my mom asking my husband, “Do you think she can do this?” Maybe it was the extra hormones which had taken over my body, the lack of sleep or the fact that I didn’t reduce down to my pre-baby weight the day after giving birth, but this was the beginning of my meltdown. Of course, in true southern belle fashion, I had a hissy fit, stormed out of the room and then went to change the baby. As I undid the completely saturated diaper, I was sprayed in the face with baby tee-tee. All the onlookers were stifling their laughter, for fear I would completely cross over to the dark side, but when I started laughing, the tension was eased and I realized this being a mother thing wasn’t for wimps. I had to toughen up, and just do it. And now, whenever I hear the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” I always think of my Baptism into motherhood.
Son number two’s birth was anything but idyllic as we had a little “brush with the law” on our way to the hospital. We were pulled over by a highway patrolman for exceeding the speed limit. It was midnight, and I was in a lot of pain (as if I’m the only mother who experienced pain). My husband jumped out of the car to explain to the officer and was quickly reminded that you let the officer come to you. Fortunately, the gun didn’t get all the way out of the holster. After a quick explanation and lots of dramatics from me, we received a “police escort” to the hospital, which was pretty cool. When we arrived, the staff refused to give me anything for pain. I had to wait for my doctor who would be in around 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. Let’s just say that by the time I had my baby, my hair was in the biggest, tangled mess known to man (it actually took my mom close to an hour to get all the tangles and knots brushed out, and I must add, I could have won a Tina Turner “look-alike” contest). In addition to hours of writhing in pain sans pain medication, lest we not forget the group of nursing students who came in to witness the miracle of childbirth. Seriously, there were about 8 students huddled around watching! I don’t remember that being part of my PRIVATE BIRTHING ROOM PLAN. I survived this humiliation by reassuring myself I would never see any of these people again, but was I ever wrong. Several months later while exiting the post office in my small town, a stranger exclaimed, “Wow. You’re the lady we watched giving birth.” There was something so unsettling about this, on so many levels.
Why do they want dinner EVERY night?
During my first year of marriage, I was a cooking machine. I wanted to try all of the new recipes I had been given from generations of Suzy Homemakers. It didn’t take me long to realize that being married to a coach meant never knowing what time he would be home for supper. This turned many wonderful meals into gourmet disasters. I learned early on that most meals would never be served warm and since games were played two nights a week, I didn’t need to cook every night. In case you were wondering, I adapted to this all very well. But then came the kids. I must admit, I wasn’t the best mother when it came to introducing baby foods. I did fairly well with the fruits and mixed them with cereal, but when it came to the vegetables, it was a struggle of epic proportions. I tried. I really did, but I just couldn’t do green beans, sweet potatoes, peas or carrots. The gagging would start and it became a terrifying experience for all within earshot. I did try mashing up real food and was more successful. Fortunately, the kids’ baby sitter was a super-hero and I sent vegetables with them for her to deal with. I celebrated the day that both boys were on solid foods, and Happy Meals became a staple. I know I will have points deducted for this, but in my defense, we were attending many sporting events each week, and I had to make a judgment call on fast food vs. concession stand food. The most pressing issue I had with Happy Meals was when they would get the toy wrong and give “girl toys” to my boys. How many times did I have to circle back around through the drive thru to right this wrong? Too many to count.
When the boys were both in school, I made it a point to prepare breakfast for them daily. I felt this was very important and it took away some of the guilt from the non-home cooked meals they may receive during our busy weeks. I prepared eggs and toast several times a week. I always added bacon or sausage on days when they were testing. I prided myself in this. I was making memories at the breakfast table, and as a working mother, I felt like Super-Woman each time I carried their plates to the table fully clothed in a dress and heels and sometimes pearls. June Cleaver, watch out.
I’ll never forget the day, when after an early morning soccer game, Charles, my youngest, and I were walking out to the car. We were parked next to a mom whom I often referred to as Mother of the Year. She didn’t work and always brought fresh fruit and water and healthy snacks to the soccer games. I’m sure her crown and sash were in her car, surrounded by petrified French fries, but to the outside world, she seemed perfect. As I was unlocking the car door I told Charles that when we got home, I would make him some eggs, bacon and toast for breakfast. Without missing a beat, and in a voice loud enough for Miss MOTY to hear, he asked, “Do you know how to do that?” I was completely embarrassed, speechless and wanted to cry. How soon they forget. I had recently started working on my Masters Degree and most breakfasts consisted of a bowl of cereal or a microwaved Jimmy Dean sausage biscuit.
Another time, after a ballgame, in front of my in-laws, the same kid complained, “Pizza again?” when I carried in the boxes and set them on the table. I am nothing, if not impressive. I tend to take the Frankie Heck philosophy on cooking for your family…”If you warm it up in the oven, it’s homemade.” She also was the wise woman who said, “The microwave is for pizza rolls. The oven is for bulky storage.” God bless that woman. She always makes me feel better about myself. We did have many home cooked meals, where we all sat at the table, but there seemed to be just as many “fend for yourself” nights when everyone was dealing with busy schedules and this thing called life. Take two teaspoons of motherhood guilt and call me in the morning…
Literally vs. Figuratively
I learned an important lesson when Christopher was very young. Be careful how you say things because children are very literal. My Dad died very suddenly when Christopher was 2 ½ and I was almost 8 months pregnant with Charles. In the midst of our shock, devastation and heartbreak, we had to try to explain to Christopher what had happened to Boompa. We told him that Boompa went to be with Jesus and he (Christopher) would be going to stay with MaMaw and PaPaw while we were helping Gramma out. I will never forget his sweet little face, pressed against the window of MaMaw’s van as they drove away. After the funeral several days later, Brian drove to pick Christopher up. On the way home, Christopher asked him, “Did you get Gramma out?” Brian was at a complete loss. He had no idea what Christopher was talking about. The question was repeated and Brian asked, “What do you mean, get Gramma out?” He replied, “Did you get her out? You said that you and mom were helping Gramma out.” The poor, sweet little angel thought that Gramma had been locked up somewhere and we had to get her out. As sad as the circumstances were, this is one of our favorite stories to tell, how our sweet Christopher was worried for days about us getting Gramma out and setting her free.
On Christopher’s 5th birthday, he jumped out of bed and was ready to go to Kindergarten. That very day. We told him he wouldn’t go for several months and wondered why he thought he would go on his birthday. He very matter-of-factly stated, “You always told me when I turned five I would go to Kindergarten.” Enough said.
Charles was always very imaginative and creative. One day after Sunday School he showed us a drawing he made. It was a picture of Jesus, holding a cup, next to a whale which was spewing water out of its spout into the cup. I asked Charles to explain and he very simply replied, “It’s a picture of Jesus getting water for the lady at the whale.”
Another time, after a lesson on Jesus calming the storm, Charles showed us a coloring page about the lesson they had learned. Jesus was standing at the front of the boat with his hands raised. Waves were crashing against the boat and the disciples were huddled in fear. Charles turned the page over to show us the part he added, and explained this was why the disciples were afraid… leaping up behind the boat was “Jaws.”
“And Jesus declared, ‘Quiet. Be still.’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’ They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and waves… and Jaws obey him…”
Okay. Think fast. Which Emergency Room did we go to last time?
During their growing up years, my boys were extremely healthy. We rarely visited the doctor except for checkups, but when they hurt themselves it was in grand fashion. The first major injury was sustained by Christopher at the age of 3 ½ during the Cowboys vs. Bills Super Bowl game. We had some friends over and all the kids were in the playroom while the adults were in the living room watching the game. We heard one of the kids wailing and jumped up to see what happened. Christopher was on the ground, pointing to his ankle screaming he was hurt. We looked closely and it wasn’t swollen, there was no bruising or any visible sign of an injury in which we should be concerned. One of the boys had fallen on him and we figured he was just scared. The next morning, when we got him up to get ready to go to the babysitter’s, he couldn’t stand on his leg and there was a tiny bruise above his shin. Brian took him to the emergency room because that seemed like the right thing to do, and it was. Christopher’s leg was broken and surprisingly the liquid Tylenol we had given him the night before hadn’t done the trick. We felt horrible, but what was most horrible of all was how pitiful he looked in his tiny cast and itty-bitty crutches. His Little Dribblers’ career abruptly ended that season, but he was able to hobble out on the court for the closing ceremony trophy presentation. He looked like Tiny Tim. Little did we know that this was the beginning of a long line of injuries for Christopher. When in Kindergarten, he and his Dad were playing basketball and Brian posted up a little too well against him. Christopher’s shoulder met Brian’s elbow (yes, it was a foul) and his collar bone was broken. When he was in the 7th grade, he broke his arm when he flipped off the neighbor’s trampoline. I guess he didn’t stick that landing. When he was in high school, during a summer league basketball game (which I wasn’t attending) he broke his nose. When he called to tell me this happened, I assured him he was being overly dramatic. It was hard to repress the horrified look on my face when he arrived home and his asymmetrical face, with his nose clearly on one side, looked like something from a Picasso painting. My guilt of not having attended the game was soon replaced with the punishment of watching the doctor “put his nose back in place.” I’m not sure after which broken bone it was that we started asking the question, “Which hospital did we go to last time?” fearing that CPS may be hot on our trail.
Fortunately, Charles didn’t have any broken bones, but on the one night I went on a girls’ night out and Brian was at Coaching School, he came flying through the front yard on his bike, flipped off of it and had the breath knocked out of him. I received the phone call shortly after we ordered, and Christopher reassured me that everything would be fine because he had called 9-1-1. We threw our money on the table for the meals we would never eat and sped back to my house where several EMTs were in my kitchen, laughing and joking with both boys, who were fine. I did get to meet the new Methodist preacher, who was also an EMT. Praise the Lord this happened on a day that my house happened to be spotless.
Everyday life offers so many “teachable moments.” I have always been very aware of this and tried my best to use opportunities that are presented to teach the life lessons that can’t be learned from books. One of my favorite times to do this was in the car. One day, as we were all cheerily riding along, I was reminding them about the importance of using good manners. Charles quickly replied in disgust, “Ewwww. Minners are yucky.” In turn, I stated that I had said “manners” not “minners” and tried not to obsess about the fact that my son sounded like Snuffy Smith or someone who lived in Dogpatch USA. Trying to steer the conversation away from fishing bait and back to etiquette, I asked them how they should respond to a grown up when asked a “yes or no” question. Again, Charles answered, “You say yes ma’am or no sir….AND you don’t say DAMN.” Not too shabby for a three year old.
When Charles was in Kindergarten, he attended a school which was about 10 miles from the campus where I worked. Brian dropped him off in the mornings and in the afternoons he rode a bus to our campus. One morning, about 6 weeks into the school year, there was a knock on my classroom door and when I opened it, there was Charles’ principal. My heart sank and sadly my first thought was “what has he done?” The principal, who I could tell was very nervous, started out by saying this was rather embarrassing, but he would just come out with it. “You need to pay Charles’ breakfast bill in the cafeteria.” I paused for a few seconds and confidently replied, “I’m confused because Charles doesn’t eat in the cafeteria. I make his breakfast every morning and he eats before he goes to school.” Again, the principal looked embarrassed and said, “Well, he must be eating again, because he has breakfast charges dating back to the first day of school.” I realized that the principal wouldn’t be making this up, but did think that maybe someone else was using his account number. I paid the $63 bill and apologized to the principal. I absolutely couldn’t wait to see Charles that afternoon to find out what in the world had been going on in that cafeteria. After school that day, I explained that the principal had come to me about his bill and how confused I was about all of these breakfast charges. I asked him to explain things and he said that every morning before school they have to wait in the cafeteria until the bell rings, so he decided since he was already in there, he should go ahead and eat. I was okay with that explanation, but then added, “But, Charles. You have to pay for your breakfast. You can’t get it for free.” He looked at me as confidently and maturely as ever and stated, “But no one else pays for their breakfast.” I then realized that this was one of those teachable moments that wouldn’t be so pleasant. Nothing like trying to explain free/reduced lunch to a five-year-old and why some people pay and some people don’t.
Sadly, there are so many times when I have felt like a failure as a parent. Looking back, here are a few that when they occurred, I mumbled under my breath “Mother of the Year”:
· The time I let Christopher go to the concession stand alone (he was about 5) and instead of buying a drink from the concession stand, he put his $10 bill in the coke machine.
· When my snack day fell on “Homecoming” so I thought it would be awesome to make cupcakes with Columbia Blue frosting. They sure were cute and tasted great. And you could tell which kids were in Christopher’s class because they had Columbia blue stains all over their lips, face and hands. Go Raiders!!
· The time I let Charles grab his juice box for his lunch. Instead of getting a juice box, he took a coke, and I received a full-page letter from his teacher about how I should not be sending caffeinated, sugary drinks with a 2nd grader for lunch. Ouch!
· When I was so excited my 3rd grade son was reading “Charlotte’s Web” because it was one of my favorite books. He came home with a note from his teacher saying he made a 100 on the AR test. We were so excited we went out to eat to celebrate! When I received his report card and AR report a week later, I found a huge error. Instead of a 100 for “Charlotte’s Web,” a 70 was recorded. I knew there must be some mistake, but then realized it was a computerized report. I asked Christopher and he said after his test his teacher said, “I bet you made a 100.” He didn’t have the heart to tell her he made a 70, so went along with it and the celebration. He ended up sobbing because he said he didn’t want to disappoint me since it was one of my favorite books. That was the day I decided not to take AR too seriously.
As I fondly remember these experiences and all of the wonderful motherhood moments, I’m reminded of the many times that should give me extra credit points. Like the times I actually used my child psychology training and when the boys were fighting, would send them to the same room, instead of separate ones. Before long, they had bonded and made up because they were both mad at me! I remember another moment of brilliance around Christmas one year, when it seemed the boys were wanting way too much stuff and had forgotten the true meaning of Christmas. Exasperated, I finally yelled out, “You’re only getting three things for Christmas. Jesus only got three gifts, why should you get more?” That has since become a tradition at our house. And what about all the birthday parties we attended? I felt like we were on the birthday party circuit non-stop for several years. Even when we didn’t want to go, we usually did, because it’s about the other person’s feelings. I hope I always taught my kids that no matter how you feel you should get up, dress up, show up and never give up. I remember one birthday party in particular that I was dreading. We ended up going because it was the right thing to do. I’m so thankful we did because Charles was the only guest who showed up. I think he learned many lessons that day.
One of my favorite memories was one day when were in Destin, Florida, at the beach. It was a beautiful, cloudless, sunshiny day. Charles ran up to me and hugged me and said, “This is the best day of my life.” Those are the moments that make it all worthwhile.
Now, if I were going for sainthood instead of Mother of the Year, I may include the time that I opted to attend my son’s baseball tournament instead of “walking” through graduation exercises and receiving my Masters Degree in Counseling (with a 4.0 g.p.a., mind you).
So, Mother of the Year judges, there it is, plain and simple. After making 3,366 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, signing 100s of report cards, permission slips and folders, attending 1000s of plays, games, presentations and awards programs, proof-reading essays and research papers and college admissions applications, I’m tired. I haven’t had a nap since the first half of George H.W. Bush’s administration. You may say that after having two children who have graduated from college, that I’m done. I know I’m not. I will never be done being a mom. I may not have handled the job as gracefully, or easily or flawlessly as others, but I have evidence of a job well done. When my son puts 70s rock on his iPod, along with George Strait, I must have done something right. When I find little notes and letters from my youngest scattered around the house after we dropped him off for college, I must have done something right. When my oldest child makes a decision based on what is responsible rather than what would be the most fun, maybe I’ve done my job. And as for it taking a village to raise a child. It does. Fortunately, I have a wonderful husband, fabulous grandparents, a babysitter who loved my children as her own, many friends and other family members who have always supported my family and continue to do so.
My children may not have had the easiest childhood, or the most fun or magical one. For this I’m glad. I think reality is so important. You learn far more from your mistakes and hard times than you do from all of your successes combined. So I’m thankful that I haven’t been the perfect mom, giving my kids the perfect life. I know they have full and giving hearts and appreciate all they’ve been given. I hope they can say, as Alice Walker did, “Yes, Mother. I can see you are flawed. You have not hidden it. That is your gift to me.” I hope that they have many more “best days” to come, but when the hard times come, I know that they have the grit and the right stuff to get through them, only to emerge a stronger, wiser more compassionate person.
Just before playing in the game that would win us the state championship title in basketball in 2006, my son gave me a “Mother coin.” On the front it says, “Mom, I Love You.” On the back it says:
When I think of you, I remember the warmth of your eyes and the beauty that blooms like a rose every time you smile.”
I put that coin in my pocket before the game, and rubbed it for luck. That day, we became champions and the victory was beyond sweet. I carry the words on that coin with me always, and the coin, itself, is kept in my car. Who needs a Mother of the Year trophy when you have that? I am thankful every day for my smart, kind, sweet, funny, responsible, messy, sometimes frustrating but always thoughtful boys. I’m so thankful that I’m not just Mother of the Year to them, but that I am their Mother, Always.